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Women Brewers: The Mothers Of All Beer

Television ads might have you believe the only women involved in the beer industry are bikini-clad servers juggling beer steins. This month, women from more than 100 breweries are collaborating to prove them wrong.  

Locally, women brewers worked together on a special batch of beer in Pike Place Market in Seattle.

A Global Recipe

The special recipe is called Unite Red Ale.  Women at craft breweries from Europe to New Zealand are whipping up similar brews using the same few ingredients. At Pike Brewing Company, women from four different breweries from South Seattle to Mount Vernon are crushing grains of rye too small to go through the regular mill. It's a hand-cranked deal, with a little assistance from a power tool.

"You can fashion it up with a drill so that you don't actually have to crank it by hand," said Meg Bragg, an assistant brewer at Pike Brewing Company.

Like other women here she started her career at the end of the production process, on the bottling line. Over time, she worked her way up to the beginning, making the beer. A study being done by Sarah A. Soule, Shelley Correll and Elise Tak at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, found only four percent of American breweries have a female head brewmaster. But it wasn't always this way.

Before Liquids: Ancient Brews

Rose Ann Finkel co-owned and co-founded  Pike Brewing Company with her husband, Charles Finkel. They say throughout history, women brewed the beer, not men.

"It began in Egyptian times. The priestesses brewed the beer and supposedly drank through golden straws," Rose Ann Finkel said.

The priestesses were in the kitchen, so to speak, and beer wasn't anything special. It's just that you couldn't drink the water, so you drank beer. The beer was not like the amber liquid as we know it today. Think liquid bread -- a mashed up and fermented concoction.

Fast forward to the Middle Ages, and a nun, Hildegard von Bingen, perhaps better known for her mystical music, discovered hops act as a preservative in beer.

"There was a time when, if you wanted a beer, the only place you could go was to the Church. And in that case, the nuns brewed the beer, and everyone else got the credit," according to Finkel.

An Import Arrives

In America, things changed for women with the Industrial Revolution. Things continued to go downhill for women with the arrival of a new type of beer from Germany, lager.

"There was a huge wave of German immigrants in the middle of the 19th century. They decidedly were more male-oriented than woman-oriented. So they set the standard for the next hundred years in brewing in America, at least until prohibition," said Charles Finkel.

By then, women were out of the picture completely.

Dishing On The Mash Deck

At Pike Brewing Company, the brewers climb up a narrow spiral staircase to the mash deck where a giant kettle called a mash tun mixes water with malt. The brewers talk about how they're taking back the industry, from men.

"Back in the day, women used to do all the brewing and then when it started being something people could make a living on, and it became cool, that's when the dudes took it over.  It's just how they roll and we're rolling back on them a little bit," laughed Janet Spindler, co-owner and brewer at Spinnaker Bay Brewing in Seattle.

"I remember even when I first started they were like, 'Can you lift a keg?' And I was like, 'Oh can I lift a keg, I'll toss a keg at you, you know?'" said Alexandria Cain, assistant brewer at North Sound Brewing in Mount Vernon, Washington.

Raising A Pint For A Cause

This ale will raise money for scholarships to help women learn the business and science of beer-making. Education helps but brewers say it doesn't replace hands-on experience and the passion that goes along with it.

"I think we're doing it.  I mean ever since the microbrew revolution started, women have been more and more interested in it. It's kind of a fun thing to do," laughed Bragg.

Unite Red Ale is fermenting right now. It will be available on draft locally in coming weeks.